As a liberal, feminist, left-coast native who was probably a Latina in a former life, I know what it’s like to feel like an ex-pat in my own country. I’ve adopted South Carolina as my home, it’s where I’ve put down roots and intend to stay. It’s a hard choice to explain to friends who haven’t been here. So when I found these words on the website for the 50th Anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Conference I just transposed the words South Carolina for Mississippi:
“When you are in Mississippi, the rest of America doesn’t seem real; and when you are in the rest of America, Mississippi doesn’t seem real.” – Dr. Robert “Bob” Moses, Program Director 1961-65 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
I’ve driven through the Mississippi Delta. I have always been fascinated by the music birthed there, but it wasn’t until a fellow transplant to South Carolina encouraged me to drive the Blues Highway that I began to understand why those songs got written.
Now that same friend, Mississippi native Jane Hearn, has taken my education one giant leap further – she’s curated a photography exhibit debuting at Tougaloo College tomorrow for the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
Curate isn’t nearly a descriptive-enough word for what she’s really done. She was married to a photographer named Jim Lucas (another reason we’re kindred spirits) and got stuck with 50,000 negatives when he died in a car accident on the set of a movie back in 1980. She’s lugged those boxes of negatives around for more than 30 years, unsure of what to do with them until news of the anniversary conference. It was a perfect time and place to honor her late-husband’s legacy – because among the 50,000 negatives were 4,000 documenting the civil rights movement from 1964-1968.
A lesser woman would have turned to bourbon facing that big of a challenge, but before Jane ended up in Beaufort with her second husband Terry she founded and directed an art colony at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. To say she’s got an eye for art and composition is an understatement and she comes from a long line of civil rights activists. She joined the Beaufort Photography Club to learn about negatives and processing and enlisted the help of a Florida-based photographer named Red Morgan to help her cull through the images.
Sometimes it’s a really good thing to live in a town so small all the artsy types know each other and become good friends. Jane’s husband Terry Stone threw a party at their house last weekend so we could all get a sneak peek at Lucas’s images before they begin a four-stop tour of the Delta.
It would be tragic if this show doesn’t make it to a museum here in South Carolina too. Lucas was witness to a movement not restricted to Mississippi, a history no Southern native or transplant can afford to forget. The photographs are truly documentary – he captured history as it was happening. Some images are still shocking, fifty years later. Newsmen waiting at the bombed out churches. The hastily-covered bodies Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner being wheeled into an autopsy. The fierce eyes of Wharlest Jackson Jr at his daddy’s funeral.
But Jane took care to include images of hope as well, so that this 50th anniversary doesn’t pass without acknowledging all that was accomplished as well as lost. Her young husband captured an even younger Marian Wright before the world knew her as the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She’s leading her forehead into her fist, testifying before the Senate Subcommittee Hearings in 1967 – weary beyond her years. She’s the one who led Robert Kennedy into the sharecropper shacks to witness abject poverty first hard. She watched as he tried, for five minutes, to tickle and engage a baby too malnourished to respond.
Which is ultimately why Jim Lucas’s photographs are so important. They force a response, even fifty years later. I’m reminded of a quote from the late Maya Angelu.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Shock. Despair. Anger. Hope. These images, and those captured by so many other newsmen and even the freedom riders themselves, still make us feel.
WWII vets are heading to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion this Friday. They’ll touch the sand, smell the salt air, revisit memories and maybe exorcise some demons. I’ve never been in combat, but I can relate to the pilgrimage part.
I’m still processing my own, not to France but to Florida. I drove five hours down Interstate 95 to take my niece to the Junior Pan Am Games of Rhythmic Gymnastics. I realize that’s not exactly crossing the English Channel but bear with me. It was the first time I’ve stepped foot in a competitive stadium since the broken back that ended my Olympic quest.
I still have nightmares about forgetting my routines or being forced to compete after twenty years. A regulation carpeted floor in front of a panel of female judges is my beachhead.
I’ve spoken about the training accident that both killed my career and freed me – but despite my TEDx talk I’ve never returned to the emotional injury. I was a freshman in college on the cusp of a dream – ranked fourth nationally and vying for a top three spot to represent my country in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games.
I fell, late at night, squeezing in some extra hours before departing for a competition in Asia. I woke up, pumped full of morphine for the pain, relieved. A broken back saved me from a life of starvation dieting, 6-hour-a-day training and hoping that other gymnasts would fail so that I’d succeed.I’ve had many chances to engage in the sport since then – invitations to become a judge, choreograph, even run a gym. But I blocked it out and never looked back.
Until my sister called with tickets to the Junior Pan Am Games in Daytona Beach. Her daughter Marina, the one who calls me her other mother, wanted to see the sport I almost conquered. She is eight, a gymnast too. I have introduced her to my mermaid friends at Weeki Wachee — and my cover career as a writer — but never to the reality of my childhood.
Taking a seat in the almost empty stands (rhythmic gymnastics still doesn’t draw the crowds in North America that it does in Europe or Asia) was just far enough away not to smell chemical carpet cleaner, the acrid hair spray or the liquid bandage gymnasts use to glue their leotards in place. I was up high enough that the athletes themselves were like tiny dancers, twirling ribbons and tossing hoops like toys.
It was a miniaturized version of my life until age 17. Watching the competition was like thumbing through a flip book of kicking legs, arching backs and juggling clubs. Marina was full of questions and I was a one-woman color commentator, explaining the differences between the ribbon and the clubs, the group routines and individual events. She was interested, but thankfully skeptical, not at all convinced it was really a sport.
I watched her gasp at the unnatural contortions of flexibility and clap for the gymnasts who managed to smile even when they dropped their apparatus. I saw how intoxicating it all seems to a young girl – the sparkling costumes, the dramatic music, the stage makeup and the cheers from the audience. And I forgave myself.
For caring so much and trying so hard. For defining myself by the standards of others. For thinking that making the Olympics was the single most important thing on earth and that quitting marked utter failure. When my niece snuggled into my arms I realized I could never have resisted the forces I witnessed again that evening in Daytona Beach. One small girl is powerless against the dreams of her parents and coaches. She is too desperate to please, to be perfect, to question the physical and psychological risks asked of her.
I wanted to scoop up all the rail-thin girls in a giant hug of reassurance – there is life after dreams. The adventure is in the awakening.
I love it when readers point out something I didn’t know my memoir said – it reminds me that the love story that at times felt like a fairy tale to me is actually true. And the truth reveals itself in different ways, to different people.
The Other Mother of the book’s title is, of course, the Jewish burlesque dancer turned Johnny-Appleseed of modern dance in the Deep South: Byrne Miller. I chose to use “the” instead of “my” other mother because I recognized that all of Byrne’s collected children can claim her.
What I didn’t realize is that she is only one of several other mothers who come to life on the pages of the book. My sister was one of the first to read it and ask if the title referred to me. I’ve always considered myself “Auntie Mermaid” to her three children, but to Jenny I was also an other mother, someone she knows will always be interested in the details of the kids we both love – no matter how small.
Then there’s the other mother I never considered at all – Byrne’s mother Fanny. She was one of my favorite characters to write about in the memoir. At first she scared me. Afterall, Fanny passed away decades before I even met Byrne.
She spoke more often of her father – the Hungarian immigrant adored by her entire family, from whom she inherited her first love and talent: classical piano. But the Byrne I knew was more determined than dreamy, more practical than prodigy. She endured physical trails more painful than I could describe, yet was stoic – almost puritan in her toughness. “Pain is for the hoi polloi,” she’d say. Where did that side of Byrne come from?
The answer, I realized, is Fanny. She was the woman who gave Byrne the delicate necklace of seed pearls that is one of my most treasured possessions. It was passed down from mother to other mother and finally to me, along with this necklace – a poison pendant Byrne said would protect me should a suitor ever proved unworthy.
But even as I grew to admire and respect the Fanny taking shape on my page, I didn’t see her as an other mother. I wrote right through a truth that readers picked up on right away – -that she was Duncan Miller’s other mother. Byrne’s treasured husband had divorced himself from his own family for some deep dark reason he never revealed. Fanny became the mother he always wanted.
It’s right there, on page 76, Byrne noticing something I had not. “…she’d watched as her husband took to Fanny’s attentions like a forgotten flower, finally watered.”
No wonder Byrne felt so comfortable in her role of other mother, she had been the understudy all her life. I only wish she could have given a copy of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” to Fanny for Mother’s Day.
With Mother’s Day approaching, I’m keenly aware of all the ways my sister devotes herself to her children. I’ll pester my niece and nephews all month to make sure they don’t forget to make her cards and breakfast in bed. My sister dotes on them, sometimes so much so that they take her for granted.
I’d probably be a much meaner mom – Type A personality that I am. There’d be a lot more rules and responsibilities. But it’s a tricky topic to bring up. It’s what I call that awkward part of othermothering. Even though my sister considers me “other mother” to her three kids – there’s no getting around the fact that I don’t have kids of my own. So is my advice worth anything?
I’m not looking for affirmations here. I’m genuinely skeptical. Byrne Miller, my other mother, had raised two girls of her own long before I came along. She could expand my horizons without worrying that her advice was untested.
It can seem like a big risk, offering yourself up as an “Other Mother.” Especially if, like me, you don’t have any first-hand experience. That’s where my sister, the full-time mother of three, bursts into a belly laugh.
“And you think anyone knows what they’re getting into when they become a mom? Don’t wait until you’re a perfect role model. Just jump in and be there.”
Her youngest child Marina is such a sweetheart she attracts other mothers like a magnet. Instead of worrying whether these other mothers have parenting bonafides, Jenny’s biggest fear is that they’ll swoop in and form a bond and then get a new boyfriend or a new job or have a baby of their own and leave Marina devastated.
“An adult understands that you can’t always keep promises. Kids don’t,” she says.
It turns out there’s a much more important measure of othermothering value that has nothing to do with having kids of my own.
“You want to know what makes you a real other mother?” Jenny asks. “When you offer to do the gymnastics car pool.”
If Byrne had been a psychotherapist in the 1980s she might have been accused of re-parenting me. If I’d met her when I was still competing she’d have been called some sort of life coach. If she had been a journalist or writer she might have been labeled a mentor. But none of these definitions describe the role she played in my life, or the role I believe many “Other Mothers” play in the emotional development of women.
I do not claim first dibs on the term othermothering. In the state where I now live it goes back to when slave mothers were sold off the plantation and other women took over the caregiving of the babies forced to stay behind. Anthropologists call these substitute mothers “Fictive Kin” and in her book “Black Women and Motherhood,” University of Maryland professor Patricia Hill Collins says “the tradition of othermothering constitutes a challenge to the notion that children are the private property of parents.”
It’s no coincidence that the pop-culture expression “it takes a village to raise a child” stems from African parenting traditions, according to philosophy professor emeritus from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Dr. Carl Hedman. “We only hear about the negative stereotypes in the black family but in this sense they’re way out ahead.”
He should know. While his wife was getting her master’s in nursing in the 70s, their family lived in a multi-racial commune. “ I don’t know why society is so locked into private attempts to be happy,” Hedman says. “Having other mothers to help raise our two sons was good for our marriage.”
Even the way he pronounces commune, more like the what-you-do-with-Mother-Nature verb than the wacko-hippy connotation, confirms what he sees as the benefit of othermothering. The Hedmans stuck with group housing even after their own boys were grown. “It eased the empty nest syndrome. I could still be a father figure in everything from teaching little boys to ride bikes to helping one of them cope with the stress of getting through Yale.”
By now you’ve read all about the woman I call my other mother. Byrne Miller was the other mother of my book’s title. But just as there is no one, single definition of other mothers, there’s no law that says you can’t have more than one.
In and of itself, that’s one major difference between other mothers and the kind we’re born with. The very fact that we choose them, or they choose us, makes the bond something most of us don’t have with the mothers who raised us. Not that we’d trade our mothers in – other mothers are never replacements, just lucky additions to a treasured life.
I’ve been lucky enough to have more than one. I share an other mother right now, with dozens of other people who came to Beaufort, South Carolina from other places. Her name is Georgia Phillips and she runs the gallery where Gary’s work was first exhibited. I mention that because it’s the way she othermothers – she spots people with talent, makes sure others come to share her opinion and then if they’re really lucky, invites them into her coveted circle of dinner guests. Which isn’t to say she’s a new-age, everything-you-do-is-wonderful kind of other mother. She never lets me forget how bad of a cook I was when she first took me under her wing. I’ve never lived down the over-salted bean soup I attempted to serve her in the 90s, and to this day she’ll only come for dinner if I tell her Gary’s doing the cooking. She’s the kind of other mother who keeps you grounded. And five pounds heavier than you should be. And when I’ve been away from Beaufort on shoots for too long, she’s the one I’m homesick for. I’ve even called her from the road, just to hear her voice and know that she’ll still make fun of me and feed me when I return.
I’d have to say that Patricia Brewer-Jones, the ballet teacher you meet in Chapter One of “The Other Mother” was the first other mother I can remember. She never even knew how much she broadened my horizons, or how often she came up in conversations around our living room. I talked of her so incessantly that my father nicknamed her “Patti Who?”
I’m often asked if my mother was ever jealous of Byrne. By the time I met Byrne I was 22 and so far removed from the circle of my mother’s influence that she was relieved, if anything. Not so when I was 12 and dreaming to become a ballet dancer. But still, I don’t think she was jealous of Patti. If anything she was envious that in her I had found a champion, someone who believed in my talent more than anyone had ever believed in my mother’s. (insert photo)
That’s why other mothers are so important. I wish my own mother had had a Patti, Georgia or Byrne. So as Mother’s Day approaches carve aside a little space to think of your other mothers too.
I still remember the first time I confided in my mother about sex. I was nine years old, living in South Africa, and had a secret that seemed so terrible I thought everyone could tell what I’d done just by looking at me. I had played spin the bottle with Simon from up the street. He spun. It pointed at me. I let him see my underpants.
My mother immediately went to my father with it and I never told her another embarrassing secret. Even when I really could have used her advice.
Fast forward thirteen years to Beaufort, SC when I began to realize that Byrne Miller was my other mother. She was 82 and I was 22 – so the age gap alone made it somehow easier to talk to her. But it was more than that. I could share secrets with her because we had chosen each other, we shared no genetic ties. She didn’t know about Simon or spin the bottle and she wouldn’t have cared. This former burlesque dancer had seen and done things that would shock Miley Cyrus today.
Over the course of ten years, I was able to tell Byrne things that would have upset my mother more than she could bear. If I had told mom about the man who stole my dog, broke my hand and tried to crash a plane with me in it – she would have been reminded of too many parallels in her own marriage.
But Byrne and I had no shared history. Our relationship was fresh and self-determined. I learned to trust that she would never judge my decisions or critique my opinions. She didn’t have to. She wasn’t responsible for me. She just told stories of choices she made in her life, colorful anecdotes and analogies I call womenisms in the book.
I could never even discuss spin the bottle with my mother, let alone infidelity and forgiveness. There are some things only meant for an other mother’s ears. And Mother’s Day is the perfect time to make sure she knows how much you appreciate zipped lips.